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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Ben Jelloun Tahar
 

«The Last Friend», Tahar Ben Jelloun

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Translated from the French by Kevin Michel Cape and Hazel Rowley

Prologue

I received a letter this morning. A recycled envelope. The postmark and date were hard to make out over the stamp of King Hassan II in his white jellaba. I recognized Mamed's uneven handwriting. In the top left-hand corner, "personal" was underlined twice. Inside was a yellowish sheet of paper. A few lines, harsh, dry, final. I read them over and over. It wasn't a hoax, or some kind of bad joke. It was a letter intended to destroy me. The signature was my friend Mamed's. There was no doubt about it. Mamed, my last friend.

I Ali

1

Mamed always used to say, "Words don't lie. Men lie. I'm like words." He would laugh at his own joke, pull a cigarette from his pocket, and slip into the boys' bathroom for a secret smoke. It was his first of the day, and he relished it. We would wait for him, on the lookout for the principal, Monsieur Briancon. We were afraid of him; he was strict and unyielding, as ready to give detention to his own two children as to any unruly students.

Monsieur Briancon was not likely to become any more lenient, especially after his oldest son was drafted for military service in Algeria. This was i960. Algeria was already in the throes of war. Once in a while, Monsieur Briancon would talk with Monsieur Hakim, our Arabic teacher, who also had a son in the army-on the other side, fighting with the Algerian National Liberation Front. The two must have talked about the horror and ultimate absurdity of the war-and about the indomitable spirit of the Algerians, determined to recover their independence from French colonial rule.

Married was short, with close-cropped hair and an intelligent face revealing his wry sense of humor. He had a complex about his small, skinny physique, convinced that girls wouldn't pay attention to him until he spoke. He charmed them with his gift for language, made them laugh-but he was just as capable of making cruel remarks. He was always ready for a fight, so other boys rarely provoked him. We became friends when he came to my defense against Arzou and Apache, two delinquents who had been thrown out of school for theft and assault. One day they were waiting for me just outside the school, trying to bait me, chanting: "The kid from Fez is a swine! He's a Jew!"

In those days, people in Tangier who had immigrated from Fez were undeniably discriminated against. They were known as "the insular people." Tangier still had the prestigious status of an international city, and its citizens considered themselves privileged. Mamed stood between me and the two bullies; he made it clear that he was ready and willing to fight to protect his friend. Arzou and Apache backed off. "We were just kidding," Arzou said. "We don't have anything against you pale-skins from Fez. Like the Jews. We don't have anything against them, but they always seem so successful. Come on, we were just kidding…"

Mamed said I was too white and told me to go to the beach to get a tan. He added that he, too, thought people from Fez had the same traits as the Jews, but he admired them, even though he was a little jealous of their special minority status in the city. He said people from Fez, just like the Jews, were calculating and tight with their money, intelligent, often brilliant; he wished he could be that thrifty. One day, he showed me an article claiming that more than half the population of Fez was of Jewish descent. The proof, Mamed said with a laugh, is that all family names starting with "Ben" were Jewish. They were Jews from Andalusia who had converted to Islam. "Think how lucky you are," he said. "You're Jewish without having to wear a yarmulke. You have their mentality, their intelligence, but you're a real Muslim, like me. You win on both counts, and you're not harassed the way the Jews are. Of course people are jealous of you. But you're my friend. You just need to change the way you dress, and be a little less cheap."

Seen from Tangier, Fez appeared to be a city beyond the reach of time-or more precisely, a city rooted and stuck in the tenth century. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had changed since the day it was built. Its beauty lay in its relationship to time. I realized that I had left behind an ancient era. After a single day's journey I found myself in the twentieth century, with dazzling lights, paved streets, and cars-a cosmopolitan society with several languages and currencies.

Mamed made fun of me, telling his friends I was a relic from prehistoric times. He went on and on about the traditions of old Fez, a city that had always resisted modernization, implying that Tangier was far superior to "that old place" so admired by tourists. Mamed's father, intelligent and cultured, was a prominent citizen with friends in the British consulate. He corrected his son. " Fez is not just any old city. It's the cradle of our civilization. When our Jewish and Muslim ancestors were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella, they took refuge in Fez. The first great Muslim university, the Qarawiyyan, was built in Fez -by a woman, no less, a rich woman from the Tunisian holy city of Kairouan. Fez is a living museum, and should be considered part of our universal heritage. I know, our treasures aren't so well preserved, but there's no city in the world like it, and for that alone, it deserves respect."

I liked this refined, elegant man. He would lend me books, asking me to pass them along to his son, who had never cared much for reading.

Mamed's house was just a few steps from the school. Mine was on the other side of the city, in the Marshane district overlooking the sea, more than twenty minutes away on foot. He used to invite me to his parents' for afternoon tea. The bread came from Pepe's, a Spanish bakery, and I thought it was delicious. At home, my mother made the bread herself, and it was clearly inferior. Mamed, though, preferred my mother's bread to Pepe's. "That's real bread," he'd say to me. "You don't get it. It's homemade. That's the best!"

2

Our friendship took a while to develop. When you're fifteen, feelings fluctuate. In those days, we were more interested in love than friendship. We all had girls on the brain. All of us, that is, except Mamed. He thought courting girls was a waste of time, and never went to the surprise parties held by the French students. He was afraid that girls would refuse to dance with him because he was short, or not attractive enough, or because he was an Arab. He had good reason to think this. At a birthday party for one of his cousins whose mother was French, a pretty girl had rudely rejected him. "Not you, you're too short and not good looking!"This offhand comment took on exaggerated proportions.

Now all our discussions at recess revolved around France 's war in Algeria, colonialism, and racism. Mamed didn't joke anymore. Naturally, I took his side, and agreed with everything he said. Our philosophy teacher read to us from Frantz Fanon's new book, The Wretched of the Earth, and we spent hours discussing it. At the time, we all sided with Sartre rather than Camus because Camus had written: "Between my mother and justice, I choose my mother." Already very engaged in politics, Mamed said he was reading Marx and Lenin. I wasn't interested, even though I was fiercely anticolonialist. I read poetry, classical and modern.


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